I normally write about the more extreme end of picky eating, where children have a complex relationship with food and may be genuinely food-anxious. In this article, I’m going to look at the developmentally normal end of the food-rejection spectrum: neophobia.
Neophobia is a fear of the new. It comes from the ancient Greek for ‘new’ and the Latin (via ancient Greek) for ‘fear’. In the context of eating, it means ‘a fear of unfamiliar foods’.
So… basically the same as picky eating, then, I hear you say? Well, yes and no. There is a whole world of contradictions in the academic literature about how picky eating should be defined. Some researchers use the phrase to refer to children who only eat a narrow range of foods. Other researchers specify that picky eating involves a resistance to both familiar and unfamiliar foods. In other words, some researchers (me included) see neophobia as an aspect of picky eating.
To explain this a little more simply, all picky eaters (at least the ones who I have met!) are neophobic but not all neophobic children are picky eaters: it is possible for a child to be wary of foods until they have had many exposures to them, but still eat a varied diet.
Why are so many young children neophobic?
Neophobia is a normal developmental stage in toddlerhood. If your enthusiastic 8 month old eater turns into a food-rejecting 13 month old, this is 100% normal! Some evolutionary psychologists have an interesting theory about this*. They suggest that humans have adapted so that at about the same time as a child learns to walk, they stop wanting to to eat anything which does not look like a familiar food stuff. This prevents them from wandering off and eating a poisonous berry. Could your young toddler’s preference for all things beige be part of the survival of the human race?
How to get through the neophobic stage
Keep on exposing your child to a wide range of foods. Whether they eat them or not, don’t give up on serving something just because it’s been rejected a few times. Serve a wide range of meals and try not to get into a rut, despite the fact that it is easier to always prepare that go-to meal you know your child will eat.
Think hard about what you are modelling. Are you wary of new foods? Is your child seeing you enjoying a varied diet? Reflect on your own relationship with food because it’s much harder for children to feel good about eating apples, for example, if they have never seen you eat an apple. If you feel that you would like to be able to eat more foods but this is hard for you, this new book by Katja Rowel and Jenny McGlothlin can help you work through this.
Try not to worry! It helps so much to know that neophobia is normal - especially when your child ate brilliantly for the first six to twelve months of solids; the change can be very disconcerting. If your child is healthy and they have a reasonable number of accepted foods covering all the food groups, try to relax and weather this phase, making sure you focus on exposing your child to a varied diet in a positive, pressure-free way.
Avoid battles for control. If you can take the attitude that you decide what foods you will serve and you set a clear structure for when meals and snacks happen, you can then let your child decide how much they eat. This is in line with Ellyn Satter’s ‘Division of Responsibility’ model. This article will give you some practical tips about how to avoid power struggles around food.
Eat with your child whenever possible, and share the same meal. The research described below illustrates why:
An interesting experiment with two to five year old children, explored the influence of adults on food acceptance. The children were served an unfamiliar food in three different experimental scenarios. In the first scenario, the adult sat with the child but didn’t eat. In the second scenario the adult ate a different coloured food. In the third scenario, the adult ate the same coloured food. The children in the ‘same colour’ group ate more of the new food than either of the other two groups, showing that what an adult eats WITH a child has an influence on how the child feels about that food. **
So don’t let neophobia throw you - sit tight and keep meals relaxed and positive. Your child is looking to you to learn about how to react to food, what their eating behaviours mean to you and how they can influence their environment through their eating decisions. For example, if they throw their pasta on the floor, will they get a yogurt? They are learning all about the world around them and your task is to teach them that eating is enjoyable, meals are relaxed and if they are uneasy about new foods, that’s fine, we can make them feel more confident just by making it normal for a wide range of foods to be served and eaten at family meals.
* Dovey, T. M., Staples, P. A., Gibson, E. L., & Halford, J. C. (2008). Food neophobia and ‘picky/fussy’eating in children: a review. Appetite, 50(2-3), 181-193.
**Addessi, E., Galloway, A. T., Visalberghi, E., & Birch, L. L. (2005). Specific social influences on the acceptance of novel foods in 2–5-year-old children. Appetite, 45(3), 264-271.